Conversion Therapy: A Fundamental Confusion

Just a quick post this morning as I mull over the morning news …

The Obama administration has responded to the online petition (inspired by the suicide of a trans youth late last year) calling for an end to “Conversion Therapy”. On the surface, this appears to be a humane and well-informed decision.  I believe that the Obama administration has the best of intentions.  The horrors and ineffectiveness of conversion therapy for the LGB population is widely documented.  In the administration’s statement, written by Valerie Jarrett, statements from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Counseling Association and others are cited that express the ineffectiveness of conversion therapy on sexual identity.   The problem here is that the petition (and the response) are about not only sexual identity (orientation)  but also gender identity.  They are not the same thing and this is a fact that is commonly overlooked (or, in some cases, delibveratelyobscured.)

Ironically the statement by the American Counseling Association that the administration’s statement links to specifically addresses why they are not including gender identity conversion therapy in their report.

“The coalition is aware that it is becoming common to include “transgender”when one refers to “lesbian, gay, and bisexual.” However, the coalition decided that it was not accurate in this instance to make that addition, because the subject is the promotion of therapies and ministries to change sexual orientation (attraction to the other sex, to one’s own sex or to both), not gender identity (psychological experience of being male or female). The coalition notes that the two populations of youths are not mutually exclusive. Some lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are transgender. Furthermore, those whose appearance and behavior are perceived as inconsistent with gender norms and roles are often targeted for sexual orientation discrimination and violence. By not including transgender in this booklet, the coalition in no way intends to minimize the real concerns for the safety and well-being of transgender adolescents in schools. We have tried to include resources relevant to transgender youth in the Resources section (pp. 17–19).”

I have to admit that I find it frustrating that many trans activists will  assert that sexual identity and gender identity are two separate things and yet will not speak out when the two get lumped together as they often do in situations such as these. Trading off of the general public’s knowledge of sexual identity issues to raise awareness seemingly similar struggles faced by the trans population is not always helpful … especially when there is serious difference between the lesbian and gay experience and the trans experience.

I want to be clear about something.  I am not saying that a child’s struggles with gender identity are any less valid (and sometimes painful) than a child’s struggles with sexual identity. I am also opposed to unethical psychological “treatment” to make a child try be someone they are not.  I believe that kids do not need to conform to preconceived gender roles or identities to grow into well adjusted adults.  But, to go back to the original petition, the statement asserts.

“Therapists that engage in the attempt to brainwash or reverse any child’s gender identity or sexual orientation are seriously unethical and legislation is needed to end such practices that are resulting in LGBTQ+ deaths.”

Despite many attempts to define it (and even legislate its definition) I feel that the concept of “gender identity” is still nebulous.  I also believe that conversations regarding how to live one’s life in a sexed body that does not conform to one’s sense of what that sexed body SHOULD be do not have to be unethically conducted as painful behavior modification therapies.  What I worry about is that the current confusion about what conversion therapy actually is will lead to parents and therapists being afraid (or face cultural shunning) for trying to help kids make sense of their sexed bodies, which I think is something that can be helpful to many.  Therapy and treatment for the wide range of issues that present as “gender dysphoria” are still in their infancy and there is little hard science behind any of it (and a number of active movements from both pro and anti-LGBT forces to discourage all research in this area.)  If we are going to begin legislating the removal of treatment options we just have to make sure that we are clear that we know what we are actually talking about.


There is a candlelight vigil this evening in my town for a trans-identified youth who took their own life last week.  Although I will not be attending, this  breaks my heart and my thoughts and prayers are with the family and all of those touched by this tragedy.  This is a real issue.  This has to get better.

Suicide Prevention Resources